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MID protests Turlock, Ceres’ river water treatment project
Tuolumne River
The Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan update calls for allocation of 40 percent of unimpaired flows along the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries — the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers — to help rehabilitate the area’s native fish species. - photo by File Photo

The Modesto Irrigation District has put a bump in the City of Turlock’s road to providing a more reliable source of drinking water to its citizens.

For the past 30 years, the City has been working on securing an alternate source of water — treated surface water from the Tuolumne River. Recently, the Cities of Turlock and Ceres, as members of the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority — and in partnership with the Turlock Irrigation District —have started the process of building a plant to deliver treated Tuolumne River water to homes by 2022.

MID’s attorney, Ronda Lucas, submitted a comment letter to the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority on April 23 as part of the project’s Environmental Impact Report stating the irrigation district cannot support the project at this time.

As part of the mandated environmental review, the regional water authority had to submit plans for the project to all agencies that would be affected. MID, in partnership with TID, owns and operates the New Don Pedro Dam, Don Pedro Reservoir and La Grange Dam. Both MID and TID have water rights for the Tuolumne River watershed.

According to Lucas’ letter, the SRWA failed to provide adequate information on the possible impacts the new surface water treatment plant would have on the Tuolumne River. She also lists a lack of information on the project’s water right amendment petition process to the State Water Resources Control Board and how Don Pedro’s current relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulation Commission and the increased water flows for salmon under consideration by the water board may affect the project.

Ceres City Manager Toby Wells said while it wasn’t unusual for projects like this one to receive comments during the environmental review process, “this one caught us a little off guard.”

Ceres and Turlock weren’t the only ones surprised by MID’s negative comments on the surface water treatment plant project — MID directors were not informed of the letter before it was sent.

MID Director John Mensinger addressed the issue to Lucas and General Manager Scott Furgerson at the April 24 Board of Directors meeting.

“To use a metaphor from my industry, we hit Turlock, Ceres and TID over the head with a two-by-four,” said Mensinger. “I had heard nothing about this issue until I got a copy of what we are criticizing them for… As a board, we should be kept informed of major things and our approval should be sought on something as important of this.

“TID is our most important partner, I’m also going to argue this is an important matter politically and for the develop of our region…Turlock’s trying to do what we did 30 years ago, which was build a domestic water treatment plant,” continued Mensinger.

In response to Mensinger’s comments, Furgerson said: “At the end of the day, this was about protecting water rights and we weren’t getting the answers we were looking for.”

The MID Board of Directors briefly revisited the issue at their May 22 meeting, where they instructed Furgerson and Lucas to work with TID and the SRWA to come to an agreement on the project.

Wells said the SRWA is building the exact same surface water treatment project that MID did 30 years ago and following the same process. He’s confident though that the issues raised by the MID comments can be resolved at the staff level and the project will still move forward.

“Water rights in California are sacred …and everybody’s worried about protecting their interests,” said Wells.

The comment letter also prompted a change in leadership for the SRWA, as Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth decided to step down from his position as board chair to eliminate any perceived conflicts of interests as he is employed by MID.

"After I learned about the concerns of MID's attorney about the project, I made the decision to step down from the SRWA board out of an abundance of caution. I didn't want my employment to be perceived as a conflict, even though I work exclusively on state and federal legislative issues. To clarify even further, I am not involved and have never been involved with the SRWA project as an employee of MID," said Soiseth.

Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra is now chair and Turlock Council member Bill DeHart is vice chair. Turlock Council member Gil Esquer and Ken Lane of Ceres serve as directors.

After the environmental document is completed, the next step will be for the SRWA to submit a water right modification to the State Water Board for approval.